Featured News Online mental health fine-tuned

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Thu, 14 Jul 2022

Online mental health fine-tuned

teenager's hands holding a mobile phone
Teens and younger children will benefit more from online therapy if their parents or guardians are actively engaged. Photo: Marjan Grabowski

James Cook University researchers working on fine-tuning online mental health programs for young people say parental involvement is key – and they have some ideas on how to maximise it.

JCU PhD candidate Jessica Muller said mental health problems in children and adolescents are recognised as an ongoing and worldwide health concern.

“About 50 per cent of mental health conditions develop by the age of 14,” Ms Muller said. “In Australia, close to 600,000 children and adolescents aged 4–17 experience a mental health disorder at some stage in this developmental period.”

While many do not seek face-to-face treatment due to a range of factors including accessibility, cost, and stigma, Ms Muller said an increasingly popular solution is to provide early intervention via online mental health promotion.

“Internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) is the most common treatment method, and with therapist support this has consistently displayed comparable outcomes to face-to-face treatment in reducing anxiety-related symptoms in children,” she said.

“Researchers have shown that these programs may be particularly effective when a child’s parents or guardians are also actively engaged in the program. Despite these benefits, the programs are often undermined by low engagement among children and their parents.”

The team interviewed 14 parents who were successfully engaging with a popular iCBT program in Australia and sought their views on how it could be made better.

Ms Muller said the researchers uncovered three main themes.

“First, programs that provide strong social support, from other like-minded parents and particularly from trained professionals, may be more successful – even if this is just an occasional email.”

She said parents described their lives as being in a constant state of flux, with numerous resource and time constraints.

“So, secondly, programmers might consider designing video or podcast sessions that can be watched or listened to whilst preparing dinner or driving – so they fit into busy daily routines.”

The final key to parents’ engagement in the programs was their perceptions around program effectiveness and ease-of-use.

“Encouragement and support for parents early in the program is vital,” Ms Muller said.

“With the increasing call for mental health interventions, it’s vital that online programs become as nuanced and sophisticated as possible, so they can provide effective assistance where it’s needed.”